Thursday, May 22, 2008

Anticipatory To-Do List

A few weeks ago, friend Dmitry told me about this Wired story on a crazy Polish guy who invented this software that helped you remember things. Basically you tell it what you want to remember and then every now and then it checks whether you've forgotten stuff and based on how long it takes you to forget things, it learns what the optimal moment is to send you reminders so you will remember stuff forever.

So that exists. But something I realized today—as I noticed that my workspace and bedroom has once again become buried under daunting piles of sweaters, eviscerated cat toys, and junk mail—is that a similar program could be used to manage periodically recurring chores before they get overwhelmingly out of control.

The idea is that for each task—cleaning the toilet, say—you'd first get the program moving by noting down either "I did it" or "I noticed it needed doing" on the appropriate date. (If you happen to remember both—"I saw on Thursday that it looked pretty grody, and then on Sunday I got around to cleaning it"—then all the better, but recording just one or the other is enough to get started.)

From then on, every time you either a) do one of your tasks or b) notice that it needs to get done again, you record it in the program. And after a couple repetitions, the software will start to be able to predict that your toilet is ready for a cleaning around every sixteen days, and that it's usually three or four days before you get around to doing it. And so then when twelve days have gone by since the last cleaning, and you haven't even thought about doing it again, the program can email you and be like "hey, clean the toilet before it gets too nasty."

And it will constantly be feeding back on itself, so that if you do your tasks right away when it tells you to, it will give you some more time before the next reminder; but if you procrastinate, and it has to nag you with emails for a week, then next time it will take that into account and notify you well in advance.

The software could optionally randomize its notifications slightly, so that you won't be expecting them at a specific time and thus more easily ignore them. And maybe it could notice if, for example, the fish tank and the bathtub were about to be in need of cleaning on the same day it would be time to mow the lawn and oil your bike chain, and space those tasks out over a couple days so you wouldn't get overwhelmed by a sudden deluge.

It would not work for tasks, like feeding the dog or paying your taxes, that (hopefully!) get done on an externally imposed schedule; regular calendars and to-do lists, if not simple force of habit, can deal with those easily enough. And it would not work for people who prefer to leave their messes until a biweekly "big clean," or who like to set aside one day a month to sort out all their bills.

It seems like a simple enough program to write, and though I couldn't find anything like it, I may have just been searching for the wrong terms. I did find that the Boy Scouts have a merit badge for time management. Which is hilarious.

So I might take a crack at a quick proof of concept, just to see if I actually use it. And to give me something to do while I'm avoiding sweeping the stairs, natch.


DU said...

With software like this, who needs a wife, amirite? Guys?

Max Silvestri said...